Poetry for People
Who Don't Read Poetry. Also, Other Stuff.
"You definitely have something going here: the quick take, unexpected turn-arounds, lots of playfulness... delightful in many instances." —Billy Collins, former US Poet Laureate
Speaking for a Natural,
Intelligent, Outlandish Faith
(a non-fiction book)
“Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness.”
Many intelligent, educated people today feel forced to conclude that existence is meaningless and death is the end.
Isn’t it the only sane conclusion?
Surely we can only believe in some sort of divinity by abandoning our intelligence. Isn’t religion, or any form of spirituality, childish? Absurd stories at odds with common sense are something we grow out of. Are we to accept that mechanical rules govern our day-in and day-out existence, but somehow don’t apply in a realm we’ve never seen? Or that the randomness and injustice of the world are part of something ultimately meaningful? Are we to make peace with a God who is either too cruel to deserve our affection or too good to be true? What’s more, there are a thousand versions of this inanity. Which religion got its story right? Who wins?
No one, say the smart people. There is no God. What Science offers instead is a unified, rational view of existence that squares with what every human experiences every day. Scientists can be Chinese or German, Catholic or Hindu, but they all accept the evidence of their everyday, universal, human senses. They all use their everyday, universal, human logic to mine that evidence for the laws of nature. Laws we can count on. Laws that work. Religions start wars. But Science improves our crops, builds our computers, lights our homes, and carries us around the planet in air-conditioned comfort.
So which is it? Do you want meaning or intelligence? A universe that cares or a fully functioning brain? It seems to many we have to choose.
These essays beg to differ.
Whether read in the order presented or one of your choosing, these essays turn the same intelligence Science uses back on itself. What can Science and its human servants really say about God—or whatever word we choose for some ultimate comforting something? It seems as if scientists have peered into the farthest reaches of space and the smallest specks of matter and come up empty. But these essays explore a paradox. The apparently obvious notion that the universe is impersonal, mechanical, and devoid of magic is itself a kind of spell.
The Science Spell
yesterday evening i rode in a car
as two people talked
about the afterlife, how
it could just be
chemicals—the white light,
with the dead; there was
a rational discussion—
what it would take
to be convinced;
as though to live
were to wait
as though there weren’t
a fire inside
I recently listened to Larry King interview the astrophysicist and science guru Neil deGrasse Tyson. Larry asked Neil what he thought happened to us after we die. Tyson began his response by saying, “Well, I can make some unassailable statements about what happens when you die.” He then explained how the food we eat contains chemicals with energy, how we use that energy to function, and how when we die, we don’t maintain the energy any longer. If we’re cremated, it radiates into space as heat; if we’re buried, worms and microbes get it. Tyson, in other words, seems to believe what I used to believe. Death is the eternal extinction of consciousness.
Eternal. That’s forever for the layperson. No snacks, no bathroom breaks, no parole hearing after 45 trillion years. Tyson seems to be OK with that. As long as he’s buried. He loves the idea of bequeathing his chemicals to worms.
Sounds like a hoot, Neil.
But Tyson is convincing. He speaks with confidence and vitality. He’s a master teacher. Being a master teacher is like being a master story-teller. Or a master songwriter, painter, novelist, philosopher, political theorist, or preacher. To be a master in any of these realms is to create a compelling world.
* * *
Every human lives in a world. Not the world, but a world. And usually whatever world we’re in feels compelling. An office is a compelling world. When you go to work, you enter a physical, emotional, intellectual “space” where certain rules, expectations, and activities exist, and where certain things are considered of utmost importance. Everyone and everything around you seems to reinforce this. Meanwhile, a farmer gets up and enters a completely different world. A third grade teacher enters yet another.
But it’s more complex than a simple “one-person-equals-one world” equation. For most of us move into different worlds as we go through our life and even our day. When we leave work, we enter a new world—the subway, say. Here, a sales manager is suddenly stripped of his authority. His suit and tie now mark him not as someone to be feared but as someone who fears. The rulers in this world wear ripped jeans and backward baseball caps. When we come home from work, we enter yet another world. Different rules apply, different expectations. Rear Admiral George Morrison had a military career that included the command of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin when the 1964 incident there kicked the Vietnam war into high gear. At home, he faced a different kind of trouble: his teenage son, the future rock star Jim Morrison. Which was more of a challenge—Jim or the Viet Cong—is hard to say, but each was certainly part of a different world for George.
But the physical place you’re in isn’t the only—or even the most important—factor in creating your world. Every person that comes into that office on Wednesday morning is in their own particular variation of the “Office World.” They carry their ideas about life and themselves and other people with them. Patrick is shy because he constantly expects to get criticized by all the parents… uh, co-workers around him. Gloria is loud and gets in everybody’s face because she knows you gotta call it like you see it. Both Patrick and Gloria walk around in the same office but are in largely different worlds. Both are experiencing different results from the way they are in that world.
Now add to this complexity the fact that we’re always changing, in big and small ways. We grow up from little kids to adolescents to teens to young adults and so on. We learn, adapt, or get more and more entrenched. So even if we remain in the same physical place, we still change our world by experiencing that place differently. A student who has a wilderness adventure in the Sierras the summer after junior year comes back to high school with new eyes. She notices new things, thinks of herself differently, perhaps with more confidence. The world of high school has changed.
Now add the worlds of other species living right alongside us—say, your dog. There she is right next to you in the living room, but occupying a radically different world—one filled with high-pitched sounds you can’t hear, awash in myriad odors you can’t smell, and apparently suffused with a kind of unconditional love that few humans maintain for long.
Worlds overlap, co-exist, pop, blend, and change all the time. You could even say that every instant is a new world. Yet it’s easy to get sucked into a certain world or a certain version of a world and believe it’s fundamentally, absolutely real. A world is a spell. There could be all sorts of things around you, but you only notice what the spell allows you to notice.
Growing up with a certain personality, in a certain place, with certain parents can cast a spell on you. Mentors, friends, schools, books, experiences, or jobs can all cast spells on you. Religions, philosophies, and political theories can cast spells on you. Spells are self-reinforcing. You begin to see the world according to the ideas that compel you. You read more books along the same lines, seek out people, experiences, facts, and statistics to contribute to the spell.
It’s easy to notice the nature of the spells that others are in. You can clearly see that your friend Maya occupies a simplistic world in which, say, all men are liars. Or that your colleague Anthony lives in a world where some people will be raptured and others won’t. Lots of us can point out the strange features of the worlds our least favorite politicians seem to inhabit. We don’t as readily acknowledge the spell-like nature of our own worlds. That feels too disorienting. After all, we’ve built our lives around our spells.
Often, we allow a work of art to cast its spell on us. The greater the work of art, the more powerful a spell it casts. Accuracy or truth doesn’t enter into it—at least in the factual sense. We can be transported to a compelling world by a great Dylan song, like “Visions of Johanna,” or “Like a Rolling Stone.” We can stand entranced before a Rembrandt portrait. We can be completely immersed in the waters of a good novel. Art, though, tends to be more respectful of your autonomy. It holds you only briefly, and you’re more aware of your control over the spell—that you can turn off the song, look at a different painting, or close the book.
When you “leave” a work of art, you break its spell. You can then reflect on that spell and gain perspective. Our power to break the spell of art is an important element in our experience of art. Horror movies cast a terrifying spell, but surely people go to them in part because there’s a greater comfort in the awareness that it’s “just a movie.” When it’s over—or even before that—we can cross the threshold of the theater doors, look up at the sky or over at the Target across the parking lot, and feel held by something larger than the movie world. All art is generous in this way. Every work offers us not only a new world to explore, but also clearly displays that world’s exit signs. We get to be held by the art and also aware that we hold the art. When it comes to the world of a work of art, in other words, we’re more aware of that world’s boundaries.
* * *
Imagine living in the old days—in medieval Europe or a tribal society. Back then, the idea of “something” beyond the boundaries of your known physical world was easy to picture. There were actual physical limits to where anyone had been. You could stand on the shore, say, of the Atlantic Ocean and look out over that immense sheet of water and wonder what was out there. Or you could look up at the blinking stars and wonder what on earth they were. No one had ever been across the sea or out into space. No one had even dug down into the ground beneath you more than a few score feet. You could feel yourself surrounded—maybe embraced—by a very immediate mystery. What was out there, up there, down there—there, where you were pointing? What was beyond your world?
There had to be something. So, based on your experiences in your world, you imagined that something. Your myths—or religion—populated that realm with beings. They were like you, but more powerful and more permanent. Something grand was going on just across the boundaries of your immediate world—just outside the movie theater you were in.
You could imagine yourself cradled by that “something”—like a child held in a mother’s arms. When the ancient Greeks looked far enough west across the sea, they stopped picturing more regular old hills and people, and saw the entrance to Hades. When the Blackfoot looked at the moon, they didn’t think “big rock” like we do, but Ko’komiki’somm, second eldest of the Sky People, wife of the sun god Naato’si, mother of the stars. When a medieval peasant looked up into the same night sky, she didn’t experience an empty abyss, but concentric spheres filled with angels and ultimately God. Stop for a moment and feel what that would be like: to every night look up and feel the presence of angels—real angels.
Something unquenchable—some “fire inside”—burns in us. It’s an insistence that we somehow matter—deeply. It’s a need to be eternal or part of something eternal. Call it a sense of grandeur, wonder, love, or meaning. Whatever we call it, the ancients had a place to “put” it: out there, across the boundaries of their world, where they could physically point every day.
We don’t have that now. While there are places “out there” we haven’t been, we believe we know what they’re like. We’ve mapped the entire planet. We know there’s no Purgatory beyond the sea—just more dirt, plants, animals, and people who blow their noses like we do. We know there’s no space beyond the sky filled with gods and angels, just our endless modern “space,” filled with billions of nuclear furnaces and chunks of inert matter.
But the fire inside still burns. We still want meaning. We still look for it. Even Neil deGrasse Tyson looks for meaning in his impersonal scientific vision of the universe—that delight he claims to take in the idea of passing along his body to worms and microbes.
As far as inspirational ideas go, however, getting munched on by grubs isn’t quite in the same league as gods, angels, and eternal bliss. Say what you will about those old beliefs, they answered something in the human soul. Well-meaning scientists like Tyson do their darndest to make their subject soul-stirring, but it’s like putting lipstick on a horrible, eternal void. Not a good look for a void.
That void’s grin has been widening for centuries now, in our art, our philosophy, and our lives. It’s that vague sense of meaninglessness under everything, that emptiness in the core, that blank of death waiting. You could feel it under Larry King’s question for Tyson. Larry was really saying, “You’re a smart guy, Neil. So help me. Please. Help me alleviate this terror that’s buzzing in the background of everything I do, this thing we all live with, but are too polite to scream about.”
Neil answered Larry’s superficial question with confidence and flair. But he had nothing for Larry’s deeper question. Nobody smart seems to have anything for Larry’s deeper question. All the smart people believe in Science.
And why shouldn’t they? Isn’t Science our oracle? Doesn’t it keep answering our questions about reality? Hasn’t it given us endless conveniences and toys, from microwaves, planes, nuclear power plants, computers, iphones, and the internet, to video games, theme parks, Las Vegas, and 64 oz. sodas? Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t on Larry King just because he’s a compelling personality. He’s also there because he’s backed up by thousands of experiments, technologies, textbooks, and universities.
This is all to say that if you have the modern viewpoint for which Tyson speaks, you see the world Science offers as qualitatively different from those other worlds created by religions, philosophies, works of art, your workplace, or your parents. Those are “worlds” with air quotes. But Science World is official. To view the world scientifically, we believe, is to snap out of all the spells. We’re seeing things as they are—mechanical. No matter where we work or how we were raised, we’re all made of chemicals, all registering vibrations of air molecules as sounds, and so on. Science defines the actual world that contains all those metaphorical ones. Science is that ultimate thing beyond or under the nice ideas and metaphors that we make up. Science isn’t a world. It’s the world.
More than that, it’s the universe. It’s everything. And there are no boundaries to everything. We can travel as far as we want now, even in our imagination, but we can never leave the movie theater.
Fruits and Thorns
It can seem like a package deal. The iphones, planes, and microwaves come with the endless void. They are not sold separately. Every world, in fact—Science, Patrick’s, the medieval peasant’s—is a kind of bargain. Every world serves us and hurts us in different ways. Shy Patrick keeps to himself at work to avoid the criticism that his world is ready to rain down on him should he make a mistake. That criticism could be crippling. In order then to function at all, it makes sense for Patrick to lay low as much as possible. So what if he doesn’t get the promotions. He likes his paycheck. The medieval peasant may not have loved working till her back was stiff, sleeping next to a cow, or never having a bath (yes, never), but we can assume that heaven sounded mighty good, and, life expectancies being what they were, not too far away.
We tend to believe the world we’re in—or the spell we’re under—is the only possible one for us, and so we also tend to accept it, warts and all. We muddle through. We eat its fruits and live with its thorns. The fruits of “Science World” are amazing. They are also fleeting. But the thorns are eternal. Science reverses the medieval peasant’s bargain. The Church gave the peasant a tedious life in return for a dazzling after-life. Science gives us a dazzling life in return for an after-life that’s the ultimate snooze-fest.
Solid and Shaky
To believe Science offers us the world is to believe it’s fundamental. Finally, we think, we’re getting down to brass tacks. Finally we’re walking on solid ground.
You could say the ancients walked on shaky ground. For they stood on a mystery. Literally. They also stood within a mystery. Mystery was under, over, and around them. Into that unknowable realm, they poured their innate need for magic and meaning. Then they felt it washing back over them.
How did that make them feel?
It seems to have made them feel at home in the universe. So much so that they felt they were the universe—or at least a participating element, as much as a lion, a mountain, the wind, or a flower was. Yes, they made up stories about the universe. But their stories weren’t hard-and-fast rational explanations of things. Rather, they were myths.
To our modern ears, myths seem like explanations—but really lame ones. “We got fire when Prometheus stole it from Zeus? Um. OK,” we say, “So now I’ve got, like, a million questions about that.” In what seems like a paradox to us, myths were explanations that didn’t end mystery, but rather channeled it. Myths gave answers that weren’t rational but resonant. Humans felt themselves as participants in a grand tale. In this state of being—under this kind of spell—it didn’t occur to people to ask what the world was made of, what’s ultimately true, what we’re doing here, or any of the other questions that plague us today.
People in cultures across Asia and Europe only started asking the kinds of existential questions we’d now call philosophical during what’s been called the Axial Age, between about 800 and 400 B.C.E., when a shift in consciousness seems to have occurred. In our Western tradition, the Axial Age was kicked off by the pre-Socratic Greeks around 600 B.C.E. For a long time after this, the old mythic sensibility co-existed alongside the newer analytic attitude. During the Scientific Revolution, though—starting roughly with Copernicus around 1540—the analytic approach started building up steam. That’s the steam we live in today.
But our longing for magic, mystery, and meaning hasn’t gone away. Every child is born with it. All kids look out at the world expecting it, imagining it, creating it. Tell them a jolly man in a red suit flies through the air in a sleigh pulled by reindeer one night a year distributing gifts to every boy and girl in the world, and they believe it—quite matter-of-factly. It’s not a stretch for them because expecting that kind of magic comes with being human. Children feel something dazzling in themselves or in the world—it’s hard to tell the difference. They dream about it. They see it in unicorns and super-heroes.
In our culture, though, that innate need doesn’t have a surrounding space to flow out to, fill, and then come washing back over us. Instead, it smashes up against the cold hard “reality” of Science. We don’t have a name for that smashing. But it hurts. Continually. We feel it in the thud of a dream deflated. We feel it in the space after someone we love dies and leaves us, so it seems, forever. We feel it in that nameless anxiety that clutches the throat. It’s the sadness in the background as we watch our kids grow up and move towards the inevitable. It’s the silent scream in Munch’s painting—and in Larry King’s question for Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Paradoxically, that solid, absolute, fundamental ground that Science seems to offer makes us feel wobbly at our core. The ancients walked on shaky myths and felt solid. We walk on solid Science and feel shaky.
Or do we? How solid, really, is the ground of Science?
Neil deGrasse Tyson, along with many other smart-sounding people, certainly sounds like he’s walking on solid ground when he uses scientific words, like “chemicals,” in his conversations about the possibility of some kind of after-life—as though the word, or concept, of “chemicals” was bedrock. As though we couldn’t dig into it.
In a way, this makes perfect sense. The word “chemicals” sounds official, after all. It’s in lots of textbooks and it explains lots of things. In fact, the word “chemicals” probably sounds as official to modern ears as the words “The Bible” sounded to medieval ears. And one doesn’t question official-sounding words. One doesn’t dig into the ground one walks on. Right?
Actually, a lot of people do. We just don’t hear their words as often as we hear all those official-sounding ones. Physicists, for example, have been probing what chemicals are made of since the turn of the twentieth century.
And what they’ve found is beyond weird. When we dig into the world “beneath” chemicals, where the rules of quantum physics reign, our words no longer seem to apply. Concepts we take for granted—like time, particle, wave, matter, energy, location, observer vs. thing observed, cause-and-effect, and even the categories of existence or non-existence—often blend or just become irrelevant. This “ultimate reality” physicists have discovered is arguably stranger than those crazy ultimate realities our ancestors imagined—whether it’s Prometheus stealing fire from Zeus or the earth sitting on the back of a turtle.
But it’s not just the word “chemicals” that smart people tend not to investigate. Smart people—people with PhDs, people who go on talk shows, people who publish books filled with data—walk around on all kinds of words which they leave sitting there as if they were definite, as if we all agreed on what they were, as if it were even possible to agree on what they were. As if, in other words, they were walking on solid ground.
In fact, just a little digging reveals that almost all the bedrock words Science habitually walks around on are actually extremely mushy. Like Wiley Coyote, if we look down at them, we fall right through them. We toss around the word “reality” as if anyone has come close to a definition of it. We blithely believe that Science is based on “evidence,” and “experience,” without acknowledging that Science doesn’t count most of our experience as evidence, because most of it can’t be repeated in controlled lab conditions. (Science only acknowledges the reality of repeatable phenomena.)
Indeed, there are whole realms of human experience that conventional Science doesn’t recognize as valid. Throughout history, in every culture, and continuing unabated today, countless thousands of normal, smart, skeptical people have had experiences that a mechanical world-view cannot explain. Visitations, visions, voices, and dreams have started religions and changed people’s lives.
And yet they exist in a blind spot in our official view of the world. We’ve never heard, for example, of Bhagawan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri, India—who died in 1961 after a lifetime marked by the simplest living and providing for the poor—even though countless eyewitnesses tell stories of his healing, clairvoyant, and other miraculous powers. We don’t know that Dr. J. Allen Hynek, PhD, chairman of the astronomy department at Northwestern University, was asked by the Air Force to evaluate UFO sightings in the 1950s and was so impressed by the hundreds of accounts of credible witnesses that he founded The Center for UFO Studies. We’re unaware that for her classic book, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross originally wrote a final chapter about the compelling testimony of her dying patients concerning encounters with spirits—in some cases, accurately describing dead relatives they’d never met—and out-of-body experiences (She decided to drop the chapter so that the rest of her book would be taken seriously.) I know a woman whose out-of-body experiences as a child were such a matter of course that she thought they were part of being human—until she started realizing they were “weird.” But despite the similar experiences of multitudes, I’ve never seen a Psychology 101 textbook with a chapter on consciousness as separate from body. As Jeffrey Kripal, a Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University writes, "if we collect enough seemingly anecdotal or anomalous experiences from different times and places and place them together on a fair comparative table, we can quickly see that these reports are neither anecdotal nor anomalous. We can see that they are actually common occurrences in the species.”
It turns out, there are boundaries to what seems like the official world of Science, just as there are boundaries to any other world. Amazingly too, it doesn’t take—if you’ll excuse the expression—a rocket scientist to find them. They become apparent when we simply ask some childlike questions, without regard for their social acceptability or convenience. Like, “If we’re made of chemicals, what are the chemicals made of?” Or, “If your thought is just a nerve impulse, then what caused the nerve impulse?” Or, “Why did Michael Chrichton claim he saw silverware get all rubbery at a spoon-bending party (in his non-fiction book, Travels)?”
Like an office or a movie theater, there’s something bigger outside Science—a greater dimension. Last I heard in fact, cutting-edge theoretical physicists were proposing eleven dimensions to explain reality. I have a feeling that number is going to grow. And grow. And grow. Perhaps the ancients just cut to the chase: mystery and magic are inevitable—they are the “thing beyond” that we are held in.
Science is a world in which we think there are no more worlds. It’s a world where we think we need to throw a wet blanket on that fire inside us—where we finally need to stop all that nonsense and “get real.” Science is a myth that thinks it has put an end to myths. Science is a myth that doesn’t know it’s a myth.
How did we fall under this spell?
The same way we fall under any spell—only multiplied by a thousand. Spells work because they seem to surround us, and because they encourage us to think, feel, and act in ways that reinforce them. The spell of Science does this in spades. But most of all, like a good spell, Science serves us. Big time. Nothing I’ve said here is to deny its usefulness. And that’s just it. Science is the most dazzling spell of all because it’s so damned practical. In fact, it’s practically miraculous.
That phrase, “practically miraculous,” is true twice. First, Science is miraculous in a practical way. It seems able to solve any practical problem. Thus the spell. If Science can do all that, surely it can do everything. Surely there are no other gods, no other worlds. And so we come to Science wanting it to solve the deepest problems of all, like a child who comes to his mother’s breast wanting the sweetest milk of all. But Science’s breasts—and I’m truly sorry for that image—are dry. Science is our modern Great Mother, minus the milk. For Science is also “practically miraculous” in the sense that it isn’t fully miraculous. It has nothing to say about that inextinguishable spark in your soul—the sense that you are so much bigger than any endless void.
You Richard Dawkinses
of the world. I love you, but you think
you can know
God isn’t there.
your own colleagues
one building over believe
that curled within
our conventional three,
too tiny to see,
there are eight more dimensions.
That at least
was their latest memo.
And so you stroll,
gazing around in what you conceive
of as neutrality.
But just as we don’t feel
the speed with which our earth
is twirling and racing
through space, so you don’t
feel your frenzied
on the deadness
on the concept
Meanwhile, you’ve crushed an ant.
Crushed a tiny, delicate
God’s cousin was napping.